Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Theater: Title Bout (October 25)

Every week, I compose listings on the week's new plays for Metromix NY. I'm often disappointed by the titles that playwrights choose for their work, so I'm reviewing their titles now. Not the shows (I haven't seen them yet) just the titles. To read about the content of each show, click through its link to my listings on Metromix NY.

Playing on cliché is a easy path to a memorable title, though the cleverness may disguise a lack of substance. This repurposing of “the break of dawn” suggests a pivotal moment at its apogee, a climax. Or is Neil LaBute just alluding to Dylan's “It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)”, which opens “Darkness at the break of noon”?

This title does good work. It suggests that the show is either modernizing a Greek myth or that the myth is a key to the show. It's got a bit of sex in it: the image of a girl in a swimsuit. And the phrase has a good rhythm―especially the vowel sounds, which are short & dull until the sharp 'e' caps it like a stopper.

Like many titles, this one points at a character. He or she probably isn't the protagonist but a catalyst (at least, that's the standard dramatic role for a prophet). A fortune teller's almost a stock character―you probably imagine the same gypsy crone that I do when you hear the phrase. Not very exciting, but okay around Halloween.

Titles, like band names, go through styles and fashions. This one screams post-war Absurdist drama, eg The Homecoming, The Chairs, The Maids, etc. These & The Memorandum strip the drama down to a focal point, ironically a banal one. Incidentally, the original Czech title is Vyrozumeni. No idea whether Czech has direct articles or not (I suppose The Seagull could accurately be called Seagull).

Surprised that Shakespeare doesn't title this play Falstaff? So was Verdi, who knew that the fat fellow would sell more opera tickets. But then, Will didn't title his own plays, someone else did. And in the style of the era, it's a lot longer (see pic). Note that the 1602 quarto gave Sir John top billing. Its the First Folio that called the play Merry Wives, which has a nice rhythm and refocuses attention on the play's clever women.

Like Krusty the Klown's fictional variety hour, The Pee Wee Herman Show winks knowingly at the style of '50s & '60s TV. Think of Ed Sullivan, Laurence Welk, & Bozo the Clown, whose names acted as a brand that let you know what kind of entertainment you'd get. Thankfully, Pee Wee Herman has a name that works in the same way, at least for audiences of a certain age. And that's who this show's aimed at.

Persephone has a classical ring, with its simple declaration that it's treating a Greek myth. If you didn't know better, you might even assume it's a real play by Euripides (it's not). Unless the show springs a twist on you, you know exactly what plot to expect from it.

Ugh. Utilitarian, made for selling a package of tickets. It attempts to brand the company's name, maybe implying (falsely) that it's a bona fide English troupe from that old theater town.

Sarah Palin used this snide phrase as a shot at Obama's 'failure' to change America. I love it―calling a set of ideals a 'thing' somehow demeans them so acutely! I also like the implicit fact that Palin looks down her nose at hope! The playwright likes the phrase too, appropriating it to imply that his or her play will wade into the mud that's getting slung about by our politicians.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Theater: Reviews (October 22)

Most Fridays, I post capsule reviews of my week of theater on Metromix's blog. But since these reviews disappear with the listings, I thought I'd publish them here too. Enjoy!

Public Theater / 3LD
Pulitzer-winner Lawrence Wright reviews the terrible situation between Gaza and Israel, offering an astonishingly balanced point-of-view on a polarizing subject. Wright has the access, acumen, and perspective to go with his New Yorker credentials, but what skills he has as a reporter he lacks as a performer. He's rumpled and fumbling, and occasionally flubs a line. Luckily, he's got Oskar Eustis, head of the Public Theater, to help him shape and vivify the piece. They add texture to the reportage by projecting photos, footage, maps and other journalistic accessories. As for Gaza itself, it's hard to imagine how the situation could be any worse. The Human Scale may sound like a lecture, but it's not exactly. Wright and Eustis trade a lecture (or an article's) authority for the informality and intimacy of theater, reducing a situation of a global complexity to a human scale (aha!) without simplifying it.

Schoenfeld Theater
Stage stalwart Patrick Stewart (forever Captain Picard) shares the stage with TR Knight (House) in David Mamet's diverting but inconsequential Life in the Theatre. Both actors demonstrate great comic timing and indicate deeper, sadder facets to their characters. As the rookie's star rises, the veteran succumbs to professional jealousy and despair. But all that's deep in the subtext. Under Neil Pepe's direction, the darker thread gets only a little attention. His Life simply if hilariously depicts the dangers of live performance (a doorknob comes off; a wig slips; lines get skipped) and the vanity of actors. Contrast the in-show hijinks with the smooth operation of Santo Loquasto's set, whose traveling flats and sliding make-up tables suggest all the nooks of an old, musty theater. Life is good enough—the performers earn genuine laughs—but it's a minor show that you leave behind as soon as you leave the theater.

The Red Room
…is like an evening at a '40s bebop club. As each Pumpkin Pie actor takes centerstage to recite a monologue, the others sit attentively to one side, offering a chuckle at a particularly rich burst of actorly energy. Meanwhile, a sound artist tailors a musical backdrop to each speech on the fly. The audience nods to the words and the rhythm, cackles at the sick ironies of Clay McLeod Chapman's five gothic tales of American life. Four of Amber Alert's monologues approach the themes of youth and sex from deeply disturbing, often hilarious angles. The four pieces pry perversities from the American psyche, with Chapman and Hanna Cheek (Off-Off-Broadway's secret treasure) giving spiky, fearless performances. The odd one out, an odd little tale about a Texas boy who discovers a dead astronaut's diary, offers unironic pleasures. Though it's lovely and well-acted, cutting it from the program would focus the evening's themes.

59 East 59
Poet Sylvia Plath wrote this one-act for BBC Radio in 1962, less than a year before her suicide. British director Robert Shaw felt compelled to stage it, but neither the compulsion or its inspiration are evident onstage. The show's a dully literal set of monologues by three women who've delivered children—one wanted, one unplanned, one stillborn. The three young brunette actors are barely distinguishable from one another, both vocally and visually. And all are directed to speak the poetry in conversational tone, as if the play were confessional prose. The standard white American accent, with its slight lisp and adenoidal vowels, is a poor tool for creating a sonic landscape. The result is painful to listen to—and you need to listen to poetry closely when there's no action or character to accompany it. Sometimes plays are lost for a reason.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Theater: Title Bout (October 18)

Every week, I compose listings on the week's new plays for Metromix NY. I'm often disappointed by the titles that playwrights choose for their work, so I'm reviewing their titles now. Not the shows (I haven't seen them yet) just the titles. To read about the content of each show, click through its link to my listings on Metromix NY.

Here's a title that's pregnant with drama. Most revolutions look alike; it's the actions taken later that distinguish one from another. And of course, 'revolution' can be taken metaphorically, as an inciting incident.

Straightforward marketing: Colin Quinn isn't the protagonist, he's the performer. The subtitle is a cliché, maybe a catchphrase. Wouldn't it be nice if Quinn meant it literally though? (In fact, he does: the show's billed as a history of civilization in 75 minutes!)

A conventional metaphor that's often used without thought to its meaning. “Critical mass” is the amount of radioactive material needed for a nuclear reaction. So “to reach critical mass” is to reach the state required for a fundamental change―a great phrase for a drama (even one that's not about physics).

The typeface? What a funny thing to allude to. Presumably, the show's about printing and publishing. But the root-word ('future') smuggles in a forward-looking theme, while the 'a' suffix adds a modernist edge.

Like 'after the revolution' above, 'in the wake' offers a good deal of dramatic potential. And like 'critical mass', it's so conventional you often forget it's a metaphor. It refers to the wake of a ship, of course, but it's also got a touch of the funereal.

As I commented last June, this is one of Shakespeare's strongest titles. A casual reader may misread “Merchant” as referring to Shylock―which would cleverly reverse expectations, titling the show after the antagonist & not the protagonist―but he's not a merchant. Instead, the title points us at a minor character, upsetting expectations all around!

A classical allusion? Penelope was Odysseus' wife who awaited his return for two decades, practicing a stratagem to hold suitors off. In other words, her name's a byword for fidelity. The title itself could be a lost Greek drama―or a modern take on the myth.

I can't imagine a duller title for a musical.

An order you'd give a dog, it works as a play title because it carries the implication of acting. To take it further, it suggests the staging of a death/resurrection, which is a fun trope to employ whether it's real or faked.

Wikipedia lists three-dozen songs entitled “Rain”, along with several movies & novels; I'll bet there are plenty of impressionist paintings too. So it's an odd choice to name your Beatles tribute concert after their psychedelic single. Gives you Beatle cred, I suppose.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Summer Reading: Inferno (canto 34)

At the lowest pit, Judecca, the damned lie frozen under the ice. And in the darkness, iced up to his chest & still towering overhead, stands Satan. The most grotesque monster in Inferno, he's got three weeping faces above three sets of bat-wings. His chin drools blood because he's eternally chomping on three arch-betrayers: Judas, Brutus & Cassius (aha! a clue to Dante's politics). Dante & Virgil climb down Satan's pelt to the Earth's center (at Satan's groin), flip around, & climb up the shanks! Suddenly, it's morning, not evening! We're out, under a dawning sky—welcome to Purgatory.